Death On Flight 800

THE DEAD DO SOMETIMES TELL tales, if you know how to look for them. Behind drawn shades in the autopsy rooms of the Suffolk County medical examiner's office, Dr. Charles Wetli and his team of 10 pathologists were looking for clues that could explain exactly how the 230 passengers of TWA Flight 800 died. The body of a person killed by a bomb looks different from the body of a victim in an ""ordinary'' plane crash. The flesh of bomb victims is shredded and may be singed by chemicals. But most of the corpses Wetli and his team examined had been killed by the impact of hitting the water after falling from a height of more than two miles -- a long (a minute and a half) and terrible way to die. The mystery of their deaths will be solved -- in time. But it won't be easy, and it probably won't be quick.

In the heavy swells off New York's Long Island coast last weekend, a high-tech Pinger Locater System trolled the ocean bottom looking for the all-important black boxes (which are actually orange) that could reveal the last words of the pilots and final instrument readings of the aircraft. On Saturday, another sonar found a trail of wreckage that may lead divers to the plane's fuselage. And in a giant hangar at the old Grumman factory in Calverton, Long Island, investigators prepared to painstakingly reconstruct the shattered 747, bit by bit. After a terrorist bomb downed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, officials were able to build a 90 percent complete ghost ship from fragments found over an 80-mile swath of land. (A piece of plastic the size of a fingernail ultimately fingered the attackers.) In the case of Flight 800, searchers must comb an area 500 miles wide -- and 120 to 200 feet deep. As of last week, they had recovered 1 percent of the plane.

If a bomber is to blame, the death toll will be the highest ever in the United States, worse even than the Oklahoma City blast that claimed 168 lives. At this point, the possibilities are virtually endless: the attack could have come from ideologically driven terrorists, a disgruntled employee, a spurned lover, an insurance-scam artist. It's still possible that a mechanical failure downed the plane. The manpower required for this investigation is huge: 400 coast guard sailors on nine ships and five aircraft; scores of FBI agents; dozens of spooks and gumshoes from Islip to Islamabad. NEWSWEEK followed key officials and ordinary people caught in the drama as it unfolded:

CHRIS BAUR, AN EASYGOING danger-lover, was piloting his HH-60 helicopter at 8:40 p.m. last Wednesday when an orange fireball blossomed in the deep twilight. He saw two explosions and ""a waterfall of flames'' spiraling down. His first thought was ""maybe two planes had collided.'' On a routine training run with the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, Baur swung his chopper south and throttled to maximum power toward flames flaring 50 feet high. Peering through a gentle hail of glowing ashes, Baur spotted a young man in blue jeans and a T shirt floating face down amid the debris. Baur thought of turning over the controls to his copilot and leaping into the sea. Just a year before, Baur had won a medal of valor for pulling three fishermen out of the ocean off Nantucket; now he figured the odds on another rescue. ""I thought, if he's alive, I could at least get his face out of the water and keep him afloat,'' Baur recalled. But the man was limp and lifeless.

""I've got a body!'' shouted his flight engineer, Dennis Richardson, minutes later. Actually, he had several . . . then several more . . . then more than a score, clustered together in a grotesque clump. The radio crackled with news from the tower: New York approach had just lost a 747 from its radar screen. The crew of the Air National Guard chopper began dropping sea dye to mark the dead.

JIM CULLEN, THE 53-YEAR-OLD VICE president of the King Kullen grocery company, had just put his grandson to bed and settled down to watch the Yankee game. Then the bulletin flashed across the screen that a jumbo jet had gone down 10 miles off Moriches Inlet, where Cullen lives. A neighbor, Mike O'Reilly, called on the phone. ""Did you hear about it?'' Mike asked. ""Let's go,'' Cullen replied. O'Reilly's speedboat, the Chasing Charlie, could do 55 mph. The wind was calm, the seas light, the tide high. The sky was black and moonless, but the sea beyond the inlet was suddenly alight -- with flames, flares, helicopter lights from an impromptu armada of coast guardsmen, fishermen and good Samaritans. The two weekend boaters headed flat out, eager to save someone.

What they found, Cullen said, was ""hell.'' ""There were legs and internal parts floating around. It smelled like rot.'' Cullen and O'Reilly gingerly reached into an oil-slick swell to pull out a woman's body. Her head fell off. Cullen gasped; O'Reilly felt sick. At 4:30 a.m. they limped home, their sleek fishing boat full of bodies. ""How was it?'' asked Cullen's wife, Linda. ""You don't want to know,'' he answered.

AT 7 A.M., HOVERING OVER THE CRASH SITE in a state helicopter, New York Gov. George Pataki looked down and thought about the families he would soon have to console. He found them in a small ballroom at the JFK airport Ramada Plaza Hotel. Some were huddled in blankets. Bracing himself, he went from table to table, offering sympathies. Some wept and hugged him. Some just stared vacantly. Several begged to be allowed to travel to the scene. (A bad idea, Pataki had been warned by experts; the shock would just heighten their grief.) Pataki found a group of five families from Montoursville, Pa. -- the town had lost 21 people, a high-school French club going off on a summer trip -- crying and asking why. The governor thought about his own 11-year-old daughter. He broke down. No one would say the word, and as Governor Pataki knew, he would be wrong to. But in his heart he knew that a bomber was to blame.

IN MOMENTS OF NATIONAL CRISIS, BUreaucracies need good traffic cops. White House cabinet secretary Kitty Higgins felt the pager vibrate against her waist while she was in the middle of a bridge hand with a group of female lobbyists at the Republican Club on Capitol Hill at 9:45 on Wednesday night. It was up to her to try to untangle the crisscrossing jurisdictions and start the information flowing -- ""connecting up the network,'' as she puts it. Among the pressing decisions to make: whom to put out on the morning network news shows? Normally, the Transportation Department and FAA take the lead in plane crashes. But after seeing their hapless performances in the wake of the ValuJet disaster in May, no one in the administration was anxious to see Transportation Secretary Federico Pea and FAA Administrator David Hinson all over the tube again. Higgins voted for another option: coast guard commandant Adm. Robert Kramek.

At the Secure Videoteleconference System (SVTS) room in the basement of the West Wing of the White House, the U.S. government's crisis command center, the product of the Feds' investigative machinery began to trickle in at about 10:30 p.m., less than two hours after Flight 800 had vanished from the radar screen. From secure rooms throughout the bureaucracy -- the Command Center at the Department of Justice, the Strategic Information Operations Center at the FBI -- top officials, their agencies identified by little cards beneath each video monitor along the wall of the windowless 20-foot-by-40-foot room, briefed, quarreled and jockeyed for position at 2 a.m., at 6 a.m., at 10 a.m. and at 4 p.m. during the first 24 hours after the crash. At the 4 p.m. meeting on Thursday, the SVTS room was so crowded that the counterterrorism experts who had arrived early were bumped from their seats to make way for President Clinton's staff, who, not uncustomarily, arrived late. Everyone was aware that careers, as well as the safety of passengers, were at stake. Some officials are wary of SVTS teleconferencing. They can't be sure which rival bureaucrats might be hiding along the wall where the camera can't see them.

In the SVTS room on Thursday, most of the weary representatives of the FBI, the Pentagon, the coast guard, the CIA, the FAA, the State Department and the National Security Council staff shared Governor Pataki's suspicions about terrorism. Yes, it was possible that the 25-year-old Boeing 747 had self-destructed. But there had been no hint of mechanical troubles, and controllers had reported no Mayday call from the cockpit. Ever since he had been summoned from a Friar's Club dinner on Wednesday night (the dinner, a roast for former New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly, had broken up to the sound of beepers going off all over the room), the FBI's James Kallstrom, the chief of the criminal investigation into the crash, had suspected foul play. Kallstrom has a personal stake in the probe: he lost a friend in the blast. But last week he was careful not to jump to any conclusions.

Three weeks after the bombing of U.S. troop barracks in Dhahran and two days before the lighting of the Olympic torch, there was no shortage of potential suspects: Afghan fundamentalists, Bosnian Serbs, Saudi extremists, drug cartels, American ideologues and any deranged individual with a grudge against the United States, TWA or one of the passengers. Counterterror experts began speculating about the followers of Sheik Abdul Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who is now on trial in New York for plotting to blow up a dozen American 747s over the Pacific in 1995. Yousef favors Casio watches; prosecutors say he uses them to make timing devices for his bombs.

The initial talk in the SVTS room focused not on a bomb, but on a missile. Some eyewitnesses thought they had seen something bright arcing toward the jet just before it blew up. At the dawn SVTS conference on Thursday, an FAA official reported that a strange radar blip had crossed the TWA craft as it vanished from the screen. The massive engines of a 747, throttled up to climb, would be magnets for a heat-seeking rocket.

The prospect of terrorists launching a shoulder-fired missile at a commercial airliner has haunted the intelligence community for years. The CIA handed out hundreds of Stinger missiles to the mujahedin in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Many were launched, as intended, at Soviet HIND helicopters. The unsettling question was whether any of the rest fell into terrorist hands -- a distinct possibility, given the fundamentalist zeal of the muj and their migration to terrorist training camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

The Stinger theory resonated with the FBI, which had picked up intelligence that some terrorists had been shopping for the lethal weapons. As the 6 a.m. meeting got underway in the SVTS room, there was a ""lot of breathless talk'' about attacks by missiles, or MANPADS, the acronym for Man Portable Air Defense Systems. (""A what?'' demanded a White House aide unfamiliar with military jargon.) Still, some experts were dubious. The Stingers handed out to the muj are at least a decade old, and probably junk by now. The Pentagon cast further doubt on the Stinger theory with some simple math. The effective range of a Stinger is just over two miles, and its sensor can't lock on aircraft much above 11,000 feet. Flight 800 blew up 10 miles offshore at 13,700 feet. By the end of the meeting, some officials were wondering whether the radar blip was a model rocket. And at air-traffic control on Long Island, FAA officials reviewing radar tapes were unable to find even the mysterious blip.

ON FRIDAY, DEBATE IN THE SVTS ROOM turned back to the possibility of a bomb stowed on board. The obvious model was the terrorist downing of Pan Am Flight 103. That flight had been blown up by a barometric device,set to detonate when the plane reached a certain altitude. The bomb had been planted on the plane at the Frankfurt, Germany, airport, then known for its porous security. Safeguards in the Athens airport, where TWA 800 originated, were worse. There is oone other critical difference: Pan Am 103 blew up over land, where the parts could be quickly recovered. Flight 800 had vanished into more than 100 feet of water. Still, it might have been worse. At JFK, the TWA jet was delayed about an hour. Had the plane been on time and in the air for another hour before a time bomb detonated, the plane might have gone down into water 1,000 feet deep.

There were no obvious bomb clues in the first few hours and days. Officials reported that there had been a ""full bag match'' at JFK as Flight 800 was loaded and boarded, meaning that all checked and carry-on luggage had matched passenger IDs. But it was possible that a suicide bomber had checked a bag full of plastic explosives; the baggage X-ray machines at JFK are designed to spot metal weapons. Only two airports in the United States (Atlanta and San Francisco) have the million-dollar high-tech scanners that can detect the kind of synthetic explosives that terrorists now routinely use. It was also possible that a member of the ground crew had slipped a bomb onto the plane. It takes about 50 people to ""turn around'' a jet on the ground -- to check, fuel, provision and load. By Thursday morning, FBI agents were devouring passenger manifests and interviewing the airline's maintenance crews. None of the passengers' names turned up in the State Department's database of 30,000 known or suspected terrorists or felons. Of course, that doesn't rule out the use of false IDs.

Could a bomb have been planted in Athens, before the plane had even reached JFK? ""We have the feeling that nothing much can have happened here,'' said Athens airport security manager Takis Tassopoulous. Infamous as a target (the first-ever airport terrorist attack in 1968, the first attempted handheld-missile assault on an aircraft, the most hijackings except for Beirut), Hellinikon Airport now has armored cars in front of the passenger lounge and on the tarmac. But as NEWSWEEK'S reporter hung around on Thursday, he watched the policeman guarding the entrance to the runway wander off to talk to an acquaintance. The door was left wide open.

Five thousand miles away, in Atlanta, Mayor Bill Campbell was wondering about his own airport. On Friday morning, as he sped down Interstate 75 in his black Lincoln Town Car to greet Clinton, who was arriving for the lighting of the Olympic flame, the mayor wrestled with a dilemma. That very night, Atlanta would open to the world. Three million people from 197 countries had come to ""The City Too Busy to Hate'' to share the fellowship of sport. Campbell was damned if he was going to turn Hartsfield airport into a gated fortress. The airport had been at what the FAA calls ""Level Three'' security since last summer. Campbell didn't want to go to Level Four, which would allow only ticketed passengers into the main terminal and keep cars far from the curb. The result would be more than inhospitable; it would be chaos. ""I think, ultimately, you cannot be a prisoner or held hostage to the specter of terrorism,'' Campbell told NEWSWEEK. ""Our greatest strength is our openness.'' But openness, the mayor conceded, is also America's greatest weakness.

Join the Discussion